As a classroom instructor, are you familiar with the basic adult learning theories? It is understood by most educators that the process of adult education involves more than providing students with a textbook and developing learning activities. Adult learning is influenced by classroom conditions created by the instructor and the characteristics of the students, which includes their specific needs, expectations, societal roles, and responsibilities. The process of learning involves an acquisition of transferable knowledge and the development of academic skills, which is also the primary goal of most adult education programs. There are three basic educational theories that inform the process of classroom facilitation and include andragogy, self-directed learning, and transformational learning.
The theory of andragogy was developed as a method of informing educators about the process of adult learning, with an emphasis on the adult’s needs. Andragogy was developed as a means of understanding the adult and is a learner-centered approach. This is in direct contrast to the theory of pedagogy, which is an instructor-centered approach to learning. Andragogy places an emphasis on active learning with the adult taking responsibility for learning and becoming a co-creator of knowledge. Pedagogy is a theory of teaching children and utilizes a passive form of learning where the students are given knowledge by the instructor. When andragogy is used as an instructional strategy the classroom becomes a collaborative learning environment. Instead of the traditional use of lectures to deliver information and tests to measure learning, adult learners are allowed to interact with the information to create knowledge and they are given choices about projects that will demonstrate their progress towards meeting the learning objectives and outcomes.
Self-directed learning, as an adult education theory, is an extension of andragogy that considers the needs of an adult and how learning occurs. A self-directed learner wants to make decisions about the process of learning and be given choices that promote a sense of autonomy. In addition to taking responsibility for their learning the adult is expected to plan and control their process of learning. The theory of self-directed learning as a teaching strategy involves offering options about learning activities and projects, while providing tools and techniques that support the process.
Transformational learning as an adult education theory is focused on the cognitive process of reflective thought as a means of learning. As an instructional strategy, the adult learner is asked to reflect on their belief systems and then they are challenged to consider alternate views through discussions, self-assessments, and group problem solving. As an adult begins to consider other perspectives they become transformed and learning occurs. The theory of transformational learning is effective when utilized as a planned activity rather than as a means of course design.
Many instructors are assigned a course that includes a pre-programmed syllabus and learning activities. While there may be little flexibility provided for modifying or adapting assignments, it is still beneficial for an instructor’s facilitation practice to understand the foundational theories of adult education. Andragogy and self-directed learning remind instructors that adults expect to be involved in the process of learning and want an opportunity to make choices about their level of involvement. Transformational learning provides a basis for understanding the role of cognition in the process of educating adults. At the very heart of these theories is a recognition of the adult’s developmental needs and the co-creative nature of adult learning.